Editor’s note: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution will spend the year looking back at the 25th anniversary of the 1995 World Series champion Atlanta Braves. In a season-long series that will run through October, we will capture all the key moments and hear from the participants as they share their memories. Today’s installment focuses on the legendary broadcast team and what the title meant to the foursome.
Before getting to the part where Skip Caray is proclaiming that the Braves have given you a championship — yes, you; he was talking directly to you — let’s lead with a bit of perspective.
To get any kind of feel for what the night of Oct. 28, 1995 meant to certain veteran broadcasters — now departed — you must understand what they endured to get there.
Four made up the core of the Braves broadcast back then, rotating in-game between television and radio. Caray. Pete Van Wieren. Joe Simpson. Don Sutton. A formidable foursome. A wise guy. A professor. An earnest Oklahoman and career .242 hitter. A luxuriously curled Hall of Fame-caliber pitcher.
It was Caray and Van Wieren who had seniority, by far. Both had called Braves games since 1976. It was a wonder their retinas weren’t turned to raisins from staring directly into the trash fire of so much bad baseball.
To get to this night, for that matter just to get to the blessed relief of the 1990s, they had been made to sit through some pure, uncut dreck. In their first 14 full seasons, the Braves lost 90-plus games nine times. Two of those were 100-plus loss seasons. This team had staked out last place, then in the National League West, and was claiming homestead exemption. Back then it was waiting for Phil Niekro’s next complete game — in their first four years on the job they had witnessed “Knucksie” throw a remarkable 75 complete games — and a lot of filling air in between.
Sometimes during the bad ol’ days, Caray, the funny one to Van Wieren’s studious straight man, would give his listeners permission to turn off the broadcast of a lopsided game so long as they promised to patronize the sponsors.
Oh, no, another Braves pitcher in a jam. Bases loaded. “And I wish I was, too,” Caray might add.
With that in mind, we take you to the booth on that night, Game Six of the World Series. Carlos Baerga at the plate. Two out. Nobody on. Bottom the ninth, Braves up 1-0, closer Mark Wohlers on the bump. Marquis Grissom poised to make that season’s final catch.
Fate would have it that it was Caray’s turn to close this game from above on Braves radio (network TV owned that side of the broadcast), with partner Simpson on background vocals. Considering that he also was at the mike when Sid Bream slid to end the 1992 NLCS against Pittsburgh, Caray would own two of the most iconic calls in team history:
“Fifty-one-thousand-plus on their feet. . .Nobody’s left to beat the traffic tonight, I guarantee you.
“Mark gets the sign. The wind and the pitch, here it is.
“Swung. Fly ball deep left-center. . .Grissom on the run
(In the background, Simpson yells, “Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes!”)
“The Braves have given you a championship. Listen to this crowd (pause to hear the roar) ... Wohlers gets ‘em 1-2-3 ... A couple of fans rushing on the field — and the constables restrain them ... The Atlanta Braves have brought the first championship to Atlanta.”
Chip Caray is a third-generation broadcaster, now calling games for the same team as his father (and Skip’s son, Josh, does radio for the Dodgers Double-A affiliate, the Rocket City Trash Pandas, in Alabama). Skip died in 2008. “We all know the tortured history that is Atlanta’s. You could tell the unbridled joy he had in his voice to be able to say the Braves have brought a championship to Atlanta,” Chip said.
“He had been there almost 20 seasons, for him and Ernie (Johnson) and Pete and all the people on the TBS crew who had slogged through those 100-loss seasons and be a small part of a championship, for him, that was the pinnacle of his career.”
Still toiling in the booth at age 68, Simpson can hear Skip’s call even now. No, really, he can. Long ago a beer brand came out with a promotional bottle opener that plays the last out of that Series on command. “Sometimes I tap it on something to make it play,” he said.
(Here’s a tale from the other side: One morning Simpson and his wife were coming down the stairs and heard this muffled voice. It was Skip, who had died by this stage, in full voice, the bottle opener spontaneously erupting. “My wife pulled the drawer open and it stopped. She equated that to Skip and her dad [a big Braves fan who had recently died] doing something to say hey, we’re here, hello.”)
Van Wieren retired shortly after Caray’s death, and died six years later, in 2014. Sutton continued calling Braves games — with a brief detour doing the Washington Nationals — until health issues beset him last season. Living in California, Sutton did not respond to an interview request for this story.
MORE FROM THE SERIES
» About the series
» FURMAN BISHER: Atlanta’s finest moment
» SPRING TRAINING: Starting with replacement players
» MARK BRADLEY: A subdued season, a giddy ending
» BUILDING THE BRAVES: How the championship team was built
» CHIPPER JONES: ‘No bigger beneficiary of ’94 strike than me’
Broadcasters occupy ever shifting ground between loyalties to the team for which they work and the obligation to treat the games honestly. Clearly, though, when the team wins it all, the radio and TV guys break off a little share of the joy for themselves. They speak for the fans in that regard.
When it came time to celebrate, nobody was going to stop them. By the time Caray and Simpson finished their post-game wrap-up on the night of the clincher, the Braves’ victory party was well underway in a large tent outside Fulton County Stadium. The entrances were blocked. Spying a break in the tent, the blustery Caray created his own entrance. When a burly guard tried to stop him, he pushed by, declaring, “Then shoot me!” No play-by-play men were harmed in the making of that celebration.
Mostly they wore their pride quietly. They all were awarded World Series rings, which they treasured but didn’t flaunt. Simpson, for instance, says he breaks his out only one time a year — on his birthday, December 31, New Year’s Eve.
Back at their home in Atlanta, it was left to Caray’s widow, Paula, to keep up the basement turned museum, and there are whole walls of World Series mementos. She had always been the keeper of the lore. “He was really excited,” Paula said when talking about her husband’s reaction to 1995. “But he always tried to downplay it. Even though he grew up with all the stuff with Harry (dad Harry Caray, larger-than-life Chicago broadcaster), he didn’t want that to be the focus of our family.”
As for Van Wieren, his widow Elaine remembers ’95 as reaching the crest of a long career climb. You give your life to baseball, sometimes it repays the passion.
“Just being there meant so much to him. He always wanted to be a baseball announcer. That’s all he wanted,” Elaine recalled. “When he finally got the job in Atlanta – I can’t tell you how many resumes he sent out – when we moved he said to me, this is what I wanted my whole life. He said he’d have to give all of his energies to that so could I take care of everything else? I did the everything else and he devoted himself to broadcasting.
“When they succeeded after all the bad years, yes, he was just thrilled.”
“Pete was a lot less effusive (than his partners) in his desire for the Braves to win,” Simpson said, “but he probably more than Skip, had that deep, burning reaction: Yes, yes, fist clinched, finally we won. Nobody was more proud of a world championship ring than Pete Van Wieren.”
It was a World Series quality broadcasting crew for a World Series quality baseball team — a real golden age for who was telling the story and the story they had to tell. These announcers were practically family members, but unlike a lot of family, you actually were happy to welcome them into your home.
When play began in ’95, the Braves and baseball had been through the trauma of a strike that closed down the end of the 1994 season. A relatively small crowd of 32,000 showed up for the Braves home opener the following year, the home team smacking around San Francisco 12-5, Fred McGriff hitting a pair of homers. “If the Braves play like this all year, the fans will be back,” Van Wieren said. He was right, of course. Van Wieren was always right when the subject was Braves baseball.
That Braves team had one notable similarity to the present one — some exciting youngsters to discuss on the broadcast. Catcher Javy Lopez and outfielder Ryan Klesko were entering their second full year. And there was this rookie third-baseman, coming off knee surgery, worth special attention.
“Chipper Jones was a shot of adrenalin for them. Like Ronald Acuna has been more recently,” said Glenn Diamond, the former coordinating producer for baseball on TBS.
In Simpson’s scorebook there was space in the upper righthand corner reserved for upcoming games. He remembers looking at the future opponents and the gauntlet of Braves starters they’d face — Maddux, Glavine, Smoltz, Avery — and think to himself, “Those poor guys, they got no shot.”
“I loved coming to park every day knowing that we were going to win,” Simpson said. “I just remember in the second half, there was no denying how good we were.” The Braves won their division by 21 games.
With the invention of the wildcard, an extra layer had been baked into the playoffs. The Colorado Rockies awaited, and would prove to be more nettlesome than the Braves NLCS opponent, Cincinnati.
In fact, Simpson recalls one play in Game One of that short series vs. the Rockies that deserves eternal recognition. One moment that might be lost, but when seen through the eyes of an analyst, takes on real weight.
It was the eighth inning of a game the Braves would hold on to win 5-4. The Rockies’ Andres Galarraga is up. Simpson notices Braves shortstop Jeff Blauser signaling Jones to take a step to his right since a change-up was coming and Galarraga was more apt to pull the ball. Sure enough, he smoked one near the third-base bag, but because of his positioning, Jones was able to make a backhand, diving catch and get a force out. An extra-base hit and possible big inning had been averted. “If he doesn’t take that step, might be a whole different finish to 1995,” Simpson said.
Such are the narrow tolerances of a championship season. Knowing how easily games can slip through even gloved fingers, it’s no wonder Simpson supplied such excited affirmation to Caray’s last-out call.
“Totally unscripted,” Simpson said. “I didn’t even hear Skip. When he hit that ball, I stood up (which is why his voice sounded a bit distant). When I was screaming, I didn’t even hear him. It was just coincidental, ‘Yes! Yes! Yes!’ ”
“The only thing remotely close to that for (crowd) noise was Sid’s slide. That night I felt the stadium shaking and even with headphones on I couldn’t hear (the play-by-play). The same thing happened with Marquis’ catch.”
He missed a darn good call in real time.
Let’s leave it to the producer, Diamond, who was standing at the back of the radio broadcast booth at the time, to dissect Skip’s soundtrack that crowned a champion:
“It captured the excitement of the moment. That listen to this crowd line, that was a signature line of Skip’s. His dad used that many times during the years. Back then on radio, less was more. The old-time radio guys wanted the atmosphere of the crowd to tell the story of what was going on.
“You could hear a little bit in their voices:
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